~Written by Elizabeth Johnstone
Most people will have heard the famous quote: “it takes a village to raise a child.” Growing up, I saw my own parents, along with their family friends, take this quote and bring it to reality, leaning on each other and making sure I had 3 extra set of parents to turn to. Currently, I work in a High School: we pride ourselves in aspiring to be a safe “village” for children to learn in. In my understanding, research may suggest that schools which succeed in retaining students, and pushing them to succeed are schools that provide opportunities for students to form attachments to the adults in their building. “It takes a village” seems to imply that raising a child involves that child forming positive relationships and several relationships, intergenerationally, with adults in the community.
Perhaps I could explore this further with some questions that I have reflected on during the first three days in Malawi.
Why more than just one relationship?
No single person has all the answers to a single problem, and it is better off that they don’t. Individuals offer different life experiences, and make different choices: good or bad, a person can speak from those lived experiences. In addition, people are not always on their A game. I know that I am not always able to be patient and listen to someone. Hopefully, in that moment, If someone expected wise counsel from me, they wouldn’t just turn around but would also seek advise from someone else. It is too much responsibility for one person, nor it is healthy to be exclusively dependant on one person.
What consists of healthy relationships?
It is obvious to say that relationships though are between people. The people in relationship are the ones to define what it looks like, and what they need. As a Canadian, my definition of healthy relationships may be different than someone coming from a Malawian village. Indeed, the definition may be different from one village to the next.
This understanding shows that, as long as the relationship does not contain abuse or using another person for personal gain, then third party intervention is not neccessary unless requested. Unless asked for, interventions will not be received, and will not be useful.
How does this relate to village life in Malawi?
“It takes a village to raise a child…” Part of the push I had to travel to Malawi this year was to experience and learn from people who live by this quote. I hoped to take back some more life lessons from their wise counsel.
Instead, I am saddened to see that the very philosophy of the village raising a child has been disintegrating because of Western involvement in Malawi. To help care for an orphaned Malawian child, for generations, westerners have removed the child from the village to give them “better education,” “better nutrition,” and “better health care.” In this case, one must reflect on the message that westerners are sending: the basic capacity of a village to raise their own child is inadequate, and they are not equipped to take care of their own children. In turn, the child may come to believe that their own community is not able to take care of them, or that the community may have even asked Westerners to remove them because he is a burden. The child’s identity as a community member, and their very self worth, is altered.
Therefore, in moving forward, our question must then be…
How do we, as Westerners, equip, encourage and empower a village to be a healthy community to raise a child?
It must be, that it is in allowing Malawians to be active participants in building their own definition of healthy relationships. That people like ourselves ought to take a patient role in the background, as Malawians re-establish their identify and sense of self-concept. That our role on the “back bench” is to be available, and provide ongoing support for building on strengths that already exist in communities; strengths that have been stripped for generations in colonial and other, albeit well-meaning, authoritative practices.
Elizabeth Johnstone is the Eastern Canadian Director, and co-founder of WHI/CCC. Currently, she works as a High School Counsellor on the South Shore of Montreal. Her views expressed on this blog are not those of her employer.